From the archives: The original post was posted on 7 May 1996
Here are some longer and more explanatory quotes from Popper on the growth of knowledge. For the benefit of those new to the idea of non-coercion, I’ll spell out just one implication: if, as Popper argues, people do not learn by having knowledge poured into them, but by an active “searchlight” process, it follows that the common worry parents have, that their children will absorb bad ideas from television, is mistaken. Understanding that learning is a creative process rather than a passive one makes all the difference to how parents feel about not limiting television access. Understand how knowledge grows and non-coercion becomes possible. Think you are above (or is it below?!) all this “abstract philosophy” and – well let’s just say you are making it incredibly difficult for yourself. I have picked passages that seem to me to be very clear, but if they are not clear to you, please don’t hesitate to say so, to ask about this. You might get some very helpful replies.
In The Myth of the Framework, Popper says:
“The inductivist or Lamarkian approach operates with the idea of instruction from without, or from the environment. But the critical or Darwinian approach only allows instruction from within – from within the structure itself.
In fact, I contend that there is no such thing as instruction from without the structure, or the passive reception of a flow of information that impresses itself on our sense organs. All observations are theory-impregnated. There is no pure, disinterested, theory-free observation.
We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of instruction by the environment. We use, rather, the method of trial and the elimination of error. As Ernst Gombrich says, ‘making comes before matching’: the active production of a new trial structure comes before its exposure to eliminating tests.”
– Karl R. Popper, 1994, The Myth of the Framework, Chapter 1: The Rationality Of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 7-9
In Objective Knowledge, Popper says:
“[T]here can be no pure perception, no pure datum… Sense organs incorporate the equivalent of primitive and uncritically accepted theories, which are less widely tested than scientific theories.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, pp. 145-146
“Thus life proceeds, like scientific discovery, from old problems to the discovery of new and undreamt-of problems.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 146
“The process of learning, of the growth of subjective knowledge, is always fundamentally the same. It is imaginative criticism. […] This is how we lift ourselves by our bootstraps out of the morass of our ignorance; how we throw a rope into the air and then swarm up it—if it gets any purchase, however precarious, on any little twig.
What makes our efforts differ from those of an animal or of an amoeba is only that our rope may get a hold in a third world of critical discussion: a world of language, of objective knowledge. This makes it possible to discard some of our competing theories. So if we are lucky, we may succeed in surviving some of our mistaken theories (and most of them are mistaken), while the amoeba will perish with its theory, its belief, and its habits.
Seen in this light, life is problem-solving and discovery—the discovery of new facts, of new possibilities, by way of trying out possibilities conceived in our imagination. On the human level, this trying out is done almost entirely in the third world, by attempts to represent, in theories of this third world, our first world, and perhaps our second world, more and more successfully; by trying to get nearer to the truth—to a fuller, a more complete, a more interesting, logically stronger and more relevant truth—to truth relevant to our problems.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 148
“There are three senses of the verb ‘to learn’ which have been insufficiently distinguished by learning theorists: ‘to discover’; ‘to imitate’; ‘to make habitual’. All three may be regarded as forms of discovery, and all three operate with trial-and-error methods which contain a (not too important and usually much overrated) element of chance. ‘To make habitual’ contains a minimum of discovery—but it clears the decks for further discovery; and its apparently repetitive character is misleading.
In all these different ways of learning or of acquiring or producing knowledge the method is Darwinian rather than Lamarckian: it is selection rather than instruction by repetition. (But we should not overlook the fact that Lamarckism is a kind of approximation to Darwinism, and that the products of selection therefore often look as if they were products of Lamarckian adaptation, of instruction through repetition: Darwinism, we can say, simulates Lamarckism.)”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 149
“I believe that theory—at least some rudimentary theory or expectation—always comes first; that it always precedes observation; and that the fundamental role of observations and experimental tests is to show that some of our theories are false, and so to stimulate us to produce better ones.
Accordingly I assert that we do not start from observations but always from problems—either from practical problems or from a theory which has run into difficulties. Once we are faced with a problem, we may begin to work on it. We may do so by attempts of two kinds: we may proceed by first attempting to guess or to conjecture a solution to our problem; and we may then attempt to criticise our usually somewhat feeble guess. Sometimes a guess or a conjecture may withstand our criticism and our experimental tests for some time. But as a rule, we soon find that our conjectures can be refuted, or that they do not solve our problem, or that they solve it only in part; and we find that even the best solutions—those able to resist the most severe criticism of the most brilliant and ingenious minds—soon give rise to new difficulties, to new problems. Thus we may say that the growth of knowledge proceeds from old problems to new problems, by means of conjectures and refutations.
Some of you, I suppose, will agree that we usually start from problems; but you may still think that our problems must have been the result of observation and experiment, since all of you are familiar with the idea that there can be nothing in our intellect which has not entered it through our senses.
But it is just this venerable idea which I am combating. I assert that every animal is born with expectations or anticipations, which could be framed as hypotheses; a kind of hypothetical knowledge. And I assert that we have, in this sense, some degree of inborn knowledge from which we may begin, even though it may be quite unreliable. This inborn knowledge, these inborn expectations, will, if disappointed, create our first problems; and the ensuing growth of our knowledge may therefore be described as consisting throughout of corrections and modifications of previous knowledge.
Thus I am turning the tables on those who think that observation must precede expectations and problems; and I even assert that for logical reasons, observation cannot be prior to all problems, although obviously it will often be prior to some problems—for example to those problems which arise from an observation that disappoints some expectation or refutes some theory. The fact that observation cannot precede all problems may be illustrated by a simple experiment which I wish to carry out, by your leave, with yourselves as experimental subjects. My experiment consists of asking you to observe, here and now. I hope you are all co-operating, and observing! However, I fear that at least some of you, instead of observing, will feel a strong urge to ask: ‘WHAT do you want me to observe?’
If this is your response, then my experiment was successful. For what I am trying to illustrate is that, in order to observe, we must have in mind a definite question which we might be able to decide by observation. Darwin knew this when he wrote: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view . . .’”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, pp. 258-259
“Now let us look more closely at this method of conjecture and refutation which, according to my thesis, is the method by which our knowledge grows.
We start, I say, with a problem, a difficulty. It may be practical or theoretical. Whatever it may be when we first encounter the problem we cannot, obviously, know much about it. At best, we have only a vague idea what our problem really consists of. How, then, can we produce an adequate solution? Obviously we cannot. We must first get better acquainted with the problem. But how?
My answer is simple: by producing an inadequate solution, and by criticising it. Only in this way can we come to understand the problem. For to understand a problem means to understand its difficulties; and to understand its difficulties means to understand why it is not easily soluble—why the more obvious solutions do not work. We must therefore produce these more obvious solutions; and we must criticise them, in order to find out why they do not work. In this way, we become acquainted with the problem, and may proceed from bad solutions to better ones—provided always that we have the creative ability to produce new guesses, and more new guesses.
This, I think, is what is meant by ‘working on a problem’. And if we have worked on a problem long enough, and intensively enough, we begin to know it, to understand it, in the sense that we know what kind of guess or conjecture or hypothesis will not do at all, because it simply misses the point of the problem, and what kind of requirements would have to be met by any serious attempt to solve it. In other words, we begin to see the ramifications of the problem, its sub-problems, and its connection with other problems.
If we now consider this analysis, we find that it fits in with our formula, which stated that the progress of knowledge is from old problems to new problems, by means of conjectures and of critical attempts to refute them. For even the process of becoming better and better acquainted with a problem proceeds in accordance with this formula.
At the next step, our tentative solution is discussed, and criticised; everybody tries to find a flaw in it and to refute it, and whatever the results of these attempts may be, we shall certainly learn from them. If the criticism of our friends, or of our opponents, is successful, we shall have learned much about our problem: we shall know more about its inherent difficulties than we did before. And if even our most acute critics do not succeed, if our hypothesis is able to resist their criticism, then again, we shall have learned much: both about the problem and about our hypothesis, its adequacy, and its ramifications. As long as our hypothesis survives, or at least does better, in the face of criticism, than its competitors, it may, temporarily and tentatively, be accepted as part of current scientific teaching.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, pp. 260-261
“All this may be expressed by saying that the growth of our knowledge is the result of a process closely resembling what Darwin called ‘natural selection’; that is, the natural selection of hypotheses: our knowledge consists, at every moment, of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by surviving so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit.
This interpretation may be applied to animal knowledge, pre-scientific knowledge, and to scientific knowledge. What is peculiar to scientific knowledge is this: that the struggle for existence is made harder by the conscious and systematic criticism of our theories. Thus, while animal knowledge and pre-scientific knowledge grow mainly through the elimination of those holding the unfit hypotheses, scientific knowledge. What is peculiar to scientific knowledge is this: that the struggle for existence is made harder by the conscious and systematic criticism of our theories. Thus, while animal knowledge and pre-scientific knowledge grow mainly through the elimination of those holding the unfit hypotheses, scientific criticism often makes our theories perish in our stead, eliminating our mistaken beliefs before such beliefs lead to our own elimination.
This statement of the situation is meant to describe how knowledge really grows. It is not meant metaphorically, though of course it makes use of metaphors. The theory of knowledge which I wish to propose is a largely Darwinian theory of the growth of knowledge. From the amoeba to Einstein, the growth of knowledge is always the same: we try to solve our problems, and to obtain, by a process of elimination, something approaching adequacy in our tentative solutions.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, p. 261
The best introduction to Popper, for anyone who is interested, is Bryan Magee’s tiny book, Popper, but don’t expect to read anything about parenting in it. Popper’s published works do not really talk directly about education and parenting much at all.
- Is it necessary to reject authority?
- What do you mean by ‘fallible’?
- Taking Children Seriously and fallibilism
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Karl Popper on the growth of knowledge’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/karl-popper-on-the-growth-of-knowledge/